Galway 2020 – getting back on track

Galway 2020 was hit by a winter storm and then by COVID-19 – but they haven’t let either beat them. Andrew Anderson speaks to board chair Arthur Lappin about re-imagining, resilience and legacy.

In early February Galway, European Capital of Culture (ECC) for 2020, was preparing for its opening ceremony, a huge fire show created by Wonder Works. A number of smaller shows in towns across Galway County had already been a hit, but now it was time for the main event.

Then came Storm Ciara, a huge cyclone that brought winds of up to 110km/h and lashings of rain to the Irish coast. Organisers had no choice but to cancel, their big bang fizzled out by wet and windy weather.

Surely things couldn’t get worse – could they?

“It’s been a bizarre year in so many ways,” says Galway Capital of Culture board chair Arthur Lappin. “I’ve worked in film for many years, and if someone sent me a script of this I’d say ‘no, it’s not credible.’”

Ciara was just the start of Galway’s problems. While a number of events did get under way, it was only a month before COVID came along and shut down the entire country. Spectators did not leave their homes to attend events, international artists couldn’t fly in, and corporate money that Galway was counting on vanished overnight.

John Gerrard's Mirror Pavilion © Colm Hogan
John Gerrard’s Mirror Pavilion © Colm Hogan

“For St Patrick’s Day on 17 March we had Kari Kola’s show Savage Beauty, where he was launching what we believe is the largest light installation of all time,” remembers Lappin. “Then the night before everything was shut down. We managed to salvage something from the event by filming it without an audience, but it was a huge disappointment.”

Two months down and two disasters in, it would have been easy for the Galway 2020 team to lose spirit. But they didn’t, and instead have shown incredible resilience, re-imagining and re-launching their programme. However, before that happened some difficult decisions had to be made.

“The first loss was our creative director Helen Marriage,” explains Lappin. “Helen had put together about 25% of the programme, some of the big international pieces, which we had not option but to cancel because of restrictions. As her role was to deliver these we parted company, with great regret.

“But perhaps the single most difficult decision came in March, when we realised we could no longer maintain the scale of the Galway 2020 organisation. We had to make a substantial number of the team redundant – 17 people in total – which was incredibly hard to do because they’d worked so tirelessly to realise the programme.”

Arthur Lappin
Arthur Lappin

What all of this meant was thatGalway 2020 could no longer act in its originally intended role of co-producer. Instead, it became more like a funding body, distributing money among artistic projects that could still go ahead. However, the upside was that more money would be available to the artists, with less spent on administration.

All this, of course, assumed that the money would still be available.

“There was a job of work to do in terms of securing state support,” says the Galway 2020 chair. “We were at the forefront of the creative community in Ireland arguing the case that the sector that was going to be most damaged by COVID was the cultural sector. Thankfully the money that had been promised from the government to deliver the Galway 2020 programme was reaffirmed.”

Now Galway 2020 will run from September until March or possibly early April 2021, with about 75% of the original programme set to take place – events that were part of the original ECC bid.

Highlights from the programme include John Gerrard’s Mirror Pavilion (until 29 September), which explores attitudes toward agriculture and the landscape; MONUMENT (until 1 January, 2021), a multidisciplinary exhibition that investigates the social history of ancient stone monuments found across small islands on the western edge of Europe; DruidGregory (until 17 October) that takes inspiration from the life of Augusta, Lady Gregory; and Gilgamesh (until March, 2021), a multi-location retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Rehearsals for theatre piece Óró © Martin Maguire
Rehearsals for theatre piece Óró © Martin Maguire

I ask Lappin – how much have these programmes changed from their original form due to COVID?

“The lead time on many of these projects was three to five years, and because they were conceived in a particular way it was very difficult to completely rethink them for virtual platforms,” he answers. “But some examples do exist, as with Gilgamesh, parts of which have been significantly reimagined for online platforms. There will still be physical parts too with a series of murals across Galway. But the narrative thread of that will be delivered mainly online.”

I first met Lappin at ISPA in January 2020, where Galway 2020 held one of its launch events. There, he spoke eloquently about what he called a ‘revolution’ that could take place in Galway City and County when it came to the appreciation and value placed on culture. Now, nine months later, he’s still optimistic for the future, but says that the seismic change he hoped for may be harder to realise.

“I felt there was an opportunity to fundamentally alter the personnel and infrastructure of the arts in Galway, as well as changing hearts and minds – actually changing attitudes towards the arts,” he notes. “Not just for Galway, because like a stone landing in the water the ripples would extend out beyond Galway for years to come.

“I think it is still possible, but there are two things that might make that harder. One of them has to do with the scale of what we’re doing, which is less than we originally anticipated. And secondly, local authorities are facing horrendous economic challenges in the years ahead. The second is particularly important, because once Galway 2020 is over our organisation will close down, and the legacy work will be handed over to the local councils. It remains to be seen what level of priority these councils will place on supporting the arts.

“That being said, some of our work like Small Towns Big Ideas – a community based series of 50 projects – is already having a profound impact in terms of engaging the imagination and the commitment of local communities across Galway. I believe the change of attitude that arises from small local projects filters back up through the elected representatives, back into the councils, and therefore changes the mind-set and priorities of the councils themselves.”

With first the storm and then COVID Galway 2020 has had a lot to contend with. Is there anything that Lappin thinks his team could have done differently?

“I don’t think there’s anybody that can plan for something like COVID,” he asserts. “I think what we can do now though is give more time for the 2021 European Capitals of Culture (ECC) [Timisoara, Elefsina and Novi Sad] to prepare and adapt. It might make sense for them to delay until 2022.

“The EU invests a relatively modest amount of cash in ECCs via the Melina Mercouri prize. There is, I believe, an imperative for the EU to seriously review their contribution to this flagship cultural project.

“I also think that the calendar for ECCs should change, with a summer rather than a winter start date,” he continues. “Particularly for cities in the northern parts of Europe. There is an expectation that when you launch such a major event you want to have a big outdoors event, which is very challenging in the winter.”

Full details of the Galway 2020 programme – much of which can now be viewed online – are available via the Galway 2020 website.